William Hartnell seems to get a bit of a bad rap these days. Both from fandom in general, and also from some of the people who worked, often briefly, with him nigh on fifty years ago, and who too often now seem incapable of talking about him without bearing their often rather petty sounding grudges just so they can stick the knife in a bit, with scant regard to context, and apparently feeling safe in the fact that few remain that could counter or refute anything they happen to say. Which, indeed, has seemingly lead to certain of those attacks and attackers becoming ever more vitriolic over time, their gradually embellished stories seemingly having long since eclipsed the cold, hard, and far less salacious facts, in favour of more colourful tellings. After all, calling someone ‘a nightmare to work with’ is far more attention grabbing than saying that they could be grumpy on occasion, particularly when things weren’t going well.
Yes, he could be impatient and grumpy at times, but then again no more so than Tom Baker ever was, yet Baker doesn’t get nearly as frequently or vehemently pilloried. And unlike William Hartnell, Tom Baker didn’t even have the excuse of old age or debilitating illness to fall back on, nor was he trapped in the same kind of unrelenting work schedule. Perhaps Bakers own sins of temperament are balanced somewhat just by the fact that Tom Baker is still very much with us, and long may he be, while William Hartnell has been gone for such a long time now. But whatever the case may be, while William Hartnell’s own story is one of both triumph and tragedy at that point in his life, Hartnell infused his Doctor with incredible range. He never phoned it in, never gave any less than his all, never took the show anything less than completely seriously, truly loved the role, and laid the groundwork for everything that was to come. Every Doctor who followed took something from Hartnell, knowingly or not. He was a fantastic Doctor, and one who certainly deserves to be looked back upon with fonder eyes than seems to be the current trend.
Hartnell flubbed his lines, they’ll say, conveniently overlooking the fact that so did everyone else, on occasion. In fact the wonderful Jacqueline Hill seemed to flub just as often as Hartnell, but at least he managed to integrate his mistakes into his performance, so they seemed natural to the character, rather than coming across as the distraction of an actor screwing up. So much so, in fact, that many of the instances that people count as flubs were actually scripted moments, based on Hartnell’s interpretation and performance. But of course little credit is given to Hartnell for any of that, nor for the fact that he loved the role and the show, nor the fact that everything we know of The Doctor was build steadily upon the foundations that he laid down. People also tend to forget that as other cast members left and were replaced, and then were replaced again, it was Hartnell that anchored the show, kept it going, and kept people coming back and tuning in each week. And he did this, despite his already advanced age, and diminishing health, for three years solid, at a pace and output that modern actors would run a mile from.
“We’re always in trouble. Isn’t this extraordinary? It follows us everywhere!”
Now that is not to say that I believe that William Hartnell was in any way perfect. As I’ve said, he was allegedly a bit grumpy sometimes, and could be rather standoffish, especially around those he didn’t know particularly well. I’m sure that there is more than a slight ring of truth about all of that. Just as it is fairly well established that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and if he felt someone was acting unprofessionally, wasn’t taking the job seriously enough, or wasn’t putting forth the effort everyone else was then he would damn well make it known that such behaviour wasn’t good enough. But for me, that just speaks of someone who cares about the quality of the show that is being made, more than somebody who is wilfully obstinate. Clearly he lacked that subtle touch, but nevertheless his intent seemed pure. Nothing I have ever read or heard leads me to believe that he was a bully to anyone, he just cared about the show, and worked damn hard on it, and wanted everyone else to do likewise. Reasonable expectation or not, it is certainly an understandable one.
I also think that context is important when talking about such things. Particularly when the man was never around to defend himself from such allegations, or present his side of the story once such stories started coming to light. Add to which, at the end of the day I just happen to be someone who believes, much like William Hartnell seemed to, that the work itself is the most important thing. Because that is what endures. And often work born out of adversity endures most keenly of all. So the odd rough working day is a fair trade for something that turned out pretty special, and remains so to this very day. At least from my point of view anyway.
“What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?”
Thankfully, there have been a few over the years who have defended William Hartnell’s work and reputation, even when it wasn’t popular to do so. Verity Lambert, William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, and Peter Purves have all come across as far more measured in their recollections, free of bitterness or any personal axes to grind. Over the years they have all conceded to William Hartnell’s occasional faults, while often pointing out that they were never that big of a deal at the time from their point of view, and had been largely blown out of proportion over the years by others, and being very glowing in their appraisals of Hartnell as lead actor. Also pointing out that if William Hartnell liked and respected you, then he could be very kind and generous indeed, and for instance, he got along famously with many of Doctor Who’s most respected early directors, such as Douglas Camfield and Paddy Russell. People whose professionalism, talent, and work ethic he keenly respected. Of course it is also true that all of them, other than Purves, worked with William Hartnell during the earliest stages of the show, and that they gradually all left over time, so you could argue that Hartnell’s decline off screen may have been more pronounced towards the latter stages. Which, if true, again brings us to just how important a little thing called context is.
After all, William Hartnell was an actor in the twilight of his career, finally given his big break, and regularly enduring a filming schedule the likes of which would likely make modern actors cry at the very prospect. A baker’s dozen worth of episodes a year? Try fourty-odd episodes a season, filmed over a production year of around fourty eight weeks, with barely a month off in between seasons. For three straight years. And having to do so in long blocks with precious few, or usually no, retakes, to boot. The concentration required for any actor to keep up with that kind of a workload in the pressure cooker environment of early serialised television, much less one who is in his latter years with an at the time still undiagnosed medical condition, frankly boggles the mind. And let us not forget, this was hardly a traditional show with traditional characters and traditional dialogue, either. And he did this as the only real constant on the show, while he saw cast that he had grown close to come and go, and even much of the original production team leave and be replaced, often by people who did not seem to have any real appreciation of Hartnell’s own contribution to the program.
For an actor undertaking what I’m sure he must have known was his last big chance, the stress and frustrations that might sometimes result from all of that are hardly surprising. Even more so when you count in personal bereavement, and his own declining health as the series went on, and towards the end a new producing team in John Wiles and Innes Lloyd who didn’t like Hartnell, believed that his salary was too high, and played up the extent of his declining health as a method to help push him from the show and role that all concede he clearly and obviously loved being a part of. The fact that he returned to the rigours of regular theatre work in the years immediately following leaving Doctor Who tends to underline that his health, while in decline, wasn’t at the time anywhere near as bad as it was often made out to be either. So he tended to be grumpy and difficult on occasion, particularly towards the end? You don’t say? With all of that, who wouldn’t be? Yet few seem to take any of that into account when putting the verbal boot in.
“But you can’t rewrite history. Not one line!”
And yet, William Hartnell always delivered the goods where it truly counted. Up on the screen. Delivering a character so memorable, so mesmerising, so unique and intriguing, that a version of him is still on screens to this very day. And as much as people can point to the Dalek craze, the simple truth remains that William Hartnell was the one constant of the first three years or so. As various monsters passed by, and companions came and went, he was our anchor. And without what he did in the role, no one would have much cared about even trying to continue the show beyond William Hartnell’s original era. William Hartnell wasn’t merely a version of The Doctor. He was The Doctor. Is The Doctor. And every incarnation since has merely been a version of him. A different aspect of his character, sharing his history, and adding their own unique flavour to what it was that he originated. And they all owe him a debt, as do all the audiences since.
Sadly, it has become popular over the years to try and diminish the extent of William Hartnell’s contributions, and the quality of his performances. In part due to the sometimes overly snide stories of production personnel who need a good story or two to tell to help justify their convention circuit spot, and perhaps in part due to how few people were able to easily assess what he did in the role for themselves, with even the existing Hartnell era stories being very rare on the TV rerun roundabout over the years. In fact, until recent years and the advent of VHS, and later, DVD releases of his Doctor Who adventures, a great many Doctor Who fans may have never seen anything much of Hartnell’s Doctor at all, other than perhaps his brief contributions to Pertwee era story The Three Doctors, or the clip placed on to the front of The Five Doctors. But now that people can see what remains of William Hartnell’s era for themselves, hopefully the ease of being able to do so will result in the desire to watch and more fairly assess all that William Hartnell brought to the role, and just how monumentally good he truly was in it.
And for my money, William Hartnell’s Doctor still has the strongest, most convincing character development arc of all of the various Doctors, right to this very day. He convincingly began his on screen life as a character who could be cowardly, selfish, arrogant, troublesome, and confrontational, very much the otherworldly alien in the big blue box. His Doctor, particularly to begin with, was a far way away from the heroic figure people are so used to seeing, and now associate as a character trait of The Doctor. Hartnell’s Doctor was far more complex, far more antagonistic, far more arrogant than what many would expect, or perhaps even accept, from a Doctor these days. Even if he did tend to naturally and believably soften over time. Just ask Colin Baker, the last Doctor who tried such an approach, and dared to take a path not quite so cut and dried heroic, albeit with scripts of a sadly lesser quality usually. Hartnell’s Doctor was an enigmatic and mysterious figure who didn’t particularly like people, much less these interlopers he found himself stuck with, who didn’t hesitate to lie if it suited his purposes, and who you were never quite sure could even be trusted to begin with.
Yet, over time, and through his encounters and companions, he evolved naturally and believably into a warmer, more compassionate, and more heroic character, while never losing that wonderfully abrasive edge that he had always had. There was a depth to William Hartnell’s performance that is all too rare to see, even to this very day. And his Doctor was able to fit seamlessly into any type of story, without ever feeling forced or in any way out of place. And for me, he was, and still is, an absolute joy to watch.
“Our lives are important, at least to us. And as we see, so we learn. Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.”
So, as we look back at those early William Hartnell Doctor Who seasons, sure there are clunkers, as there have been with every era, but so much of it still stands up in proud testament to the creativity and talent invested in it at the time. People like to comfortably assume that today’s stuff is automatically better than yesterday’s stuff, but when we look back, we find that often isn’t the case at all. And while every show is ultimately of it’s time, classic Who, like a handful of other television milestones, hasn’t just stood the test of time, but it has passed it with flying colours.
William Hartnell was the original, as another version of him might say. His Doctor was cranky, and caring. Inquisitive, and selfish. Heroic, and apprehensive. Judgemental, and understanding. Arrogant, and open minded. Warm, and distancing. Strict, and good humoured. Muddled, and brilliant. He had wisdom, and hubris. And he grew, and learnt, and changed over time. And he is still missed, and will always be appreciated. By me. And by all those who love his Doctor, or are destined to do so when they discover him some time in the future for themselves. Whatever can be said about the man, the greatest testament to him is perhaps in the character that he created, and how that character still lives, and breathes, and thrives to this very day. And that is because William Hartnell breathed true life into The Doctor, and ultimately, gave us a character that we could truly believe in. A character that we still believe in.
With a gift like that, honestly, in this 50th anniversary year, who cares if he could be a bit cranky on the set on occasion, way back when? Instead look at what we still have, thanks to William Hartnell, and his many talented companions during his journey, both in front of, and behind the camera. And smile. Because what they left us, both in terms of content and legacy, is something truly extraordinary.